Source : The New York Times
LONDON, Dec. 7 - Maneuvering to safeguard its future and reputation in the digital era, the BBC, Britain's public broadcaster, announced Tuesday some of the deepest job cuts in its 82-year history, saying 2,900 positions would be eliminated over three years to save around $610 million in annual costs.
The staff reductions represent more than 10 percent of a work force of 27,000 and drew a threat from labor unions to strike if the layoffs were compulsory. The cuts were announced at a time when the broadcaster faces challenges to the authority of its journalism and is under pressure to show it is not wasting public money.
"The BBC must undergo nothing short of transformation," Mark Thompson, the director general, told a staff meeting in London that was broadcast to BBC offices throughout Britain. "This is not a time for introspection and endless debate. It's a moment for action."
The crux of the issue is the $210 compulsory annual license fee levied on all owners of television sets, who are routinely warned in advertisements that they may be prosecuted in court and fined up to $2,000 for failing to pay up.
The fee raises almost $6 billion a year in revenues for the BBC, much to the annoyance of pay-TV operators like BSkyB, controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which claim the fee is an anachronism at a time when digital technology has transformed the television business.
The license fee also finances much of BBC radio and is far less costly than the amounts charged by satellite and cable companies - usually a minimum of $800 a year. But the fact that the fee is compulsory fuels criticism that it is unfair to both the public and rival broadcasters.
"I don't believe that we should be forced by threat of jail or massive fines to pay for TV anymore," said Kelvin McKenzie, a former editor of The Sun, a tabloid newspaper also controlled by Mr. Murdoch.
At the same time, official criticism of the BBC's journalism standards in the period preceding and during the Iraq war has shaken its credibility as it prepares to negotiate the renewal in 2006 of a royal charter that sets the level of license fees and guarantees the broadcaster's independence from government interference.
Only last week, the BBC's worldwide 24-hour news station was duped by a hoaxer claiming to represent Dow Chemical and was obliged to issue an embarrassing retraction and apology.
At his meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Thompson said: "Any discussion of the future level of the license fee is bound to begin by asking how much of the future we can afford to pay for ourselves by becoming more efficient."
Mr. Thompson joined the BBC as director general last May, succeeding Greg Dyke who, along with the chairman, Gavyn Davies, was forced to quit after an official inquiry last January faulted the BBC for reporting that Prime Minister Tony Blair's government exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify the war in Iraq.
Mr. Thompson said most of the job cuts would be in support operations like human resources and accounting, allowing program makers to concentrate on enhanced news coverage and high-quality drama, comedy and other shows. Specifically, he said the BBC would move away from "derivative or formulaic programs" - a reference to the many reality and lifestyle shows that clog Britain's prime time.
Mr. Thompson said that 1,800 staff members would move to the BBC's offices in Manchester, in northwest England, over the next five years. The move affects sports coverage, some radio news and some children's programming, he said.
Mr. Thompson, who joined the BBC from Channel 4, a commercial TV station financed by advertising, said that in addition to the job cuts, individual BBC departments would be expected to cut costs by 15 percent.
The announcement brought a gloomy response from BBC staff representatives, like Gerry Morrissey, a union official. "Many staff want to know why these savage cuts are necessary when all the areas affected have already made significant savings," he said.
But some politicians welcomed the announcement. "License fee payers deserve value for money," said Don Foster, a media spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats. "For the BBC to justify the current license fee level, it has to offer viewers fewer repeats and reality shows and much more high-quality programming."
© New York Times